The beginning of work on the "B-36 super bomber" can be attributed to the first months of 1941. The United States was still in a state of neutrality, though actively supporting Britain with military supplies. Development of a long range bomber was spurred by Nazi Germany's spectacular campaigns at the outset of World War II. It took Hitler just 20 days to crush the Polish army in September 1939 and but a few weeks for the German forces to speed across the Low Countries and France in 1940. (The western campaign started on 10 May; the French surrendered on 22 June).
Even though the scheduled invasion of the British Isles had been postponed, they seemed far from secure in the fall of 1940. The loss of Britain would leave the United States without European allies and with no bases outside the Western Hemisphere. This last stronghold of freedom in Europe, which, after surviving the Dunkirk tragedy and showing iron stamina during the Battle of Britain, continued to confront the Nazi monster, which had swallowed in a year and a half almost all the good old respectable Europe and was preparing to strike at the USSR, and then in the shortest possible time to get rid of obstinant British. In the Pacific, the dynamic Japanese empire, the Far Eastern ally of the Third Reich, was increasingly resolving its claims to hegemony in this region.
In the United States, it was understood that the entry into the World War for the country was a matter of the near future, and that with the darkest prospects: the defeat of Britain, the defeat of Russia or its final alliance with the Nazis and Japanese expansion - would put the United States in a position of a lonely warring fortress, remote from its enemies in thousands of miles of ocean open spaces. The early successes of the German offensive against Russia in June 1941 further deepened America's concern.
With such a possible geopolitical and military-strategic layout for the defense of the country and an attack on the aggressors, the country was vitally needed powerful naval forces and strategic air force equipped with aircraft capable of delivering crushing blows to the metropolitan territory of the enemy and its allies. The United States had a powerful fleet, it was necessary to create strategic aviation, and first of all to design and build a giant bomber aircraft capable of dropping bombs on Germany or Japan after take-off from bases in the United States and returning back.
The Army Air Corps (the Army Air Forces was not formally established until 20 June 1941) therefore needed a long range bomber that could carry the war to any enemy from this continent.
The Air Corps opened a design competition for a truly intercontinental bomber a fast, high altitude airplane with a heavy bombload and unprecedented range. Invitations for preliminary design studies were sent to the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation and to the Boeing Aircraft Company on 11 April 1941. The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation and Vultee Aircraft, Inc., merged on 17 March 1943. The new Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair) Corporation became the Convair Division of the General Dynamics Corporation on 29 April 1954. Northrop Aircraft, Incorporated was contacted on 27 May, when it was also asked for further design studies on a "flying wing" bomber having a range of 8,000 miles at 25,000 feet, with 1 ton of bombs. Until the early 1950s, the range and speed of aircraft were usually shown in statute miles. Afterwards, the Air Force began to measure speed in knots and range in nautical miles. Speed records, however, continued to be in miles per hour and distances were expressed in kilometers. (A knot nautical mile per hour is 1.1516 times swifter than a statute mile per hour. A nautical mile represents around 6,080 feet and is 800 feet more than the statute mile.) Not long afterwards the Douglas Aircraft Company took part in the long range bomber competitions. Douglas Aircraft had been given a contract on 19 April 1941 to check if the Allison 3420 engine could be used in bombardment type aircraft-clearly a closely related project. Douglas had also been working for several years on the XB-19 just recently flown and the largest aircraft ever built in the United States. The Air Corps planned to use the XB-19 as a flying laboratory to gather information that would help the design and construction of future giant aircraft. Solicited much later, the Glenn L. Martin Company declined the invitation due to a shortage of engineering personnel. The Glenn Martin Company had been engaged in a new bomber (the XB 33, under contract since June 1941), before becoming involved in the Northrop "flying wing" program. In addition, by 1943 the company had been approached by the Navy for participation in a new production project.
The preliminary characteristics set forth in the Air Corps requests for proposals of April 1941 called for a bomber with a 450 mile per hour top speed at 25,000 feet, a 275 mile per hour cruising speed, a service ceiling of 45,000 feet, and an overall range of 12,000 miles at 25,000 feet. These characteristics were revised during a conference on 19 August attended by Robert A. Lovett, Assistant Secretary of War for Air, Maj. Gen. George H. Brett, Chief of the Air Corps, and ranking officers of the Air Staff. Since the conference's main purpose was to accelerate the bomber project, the conferees decided to scale down their requirements. But their revision was still a tall order- a minimum overall range of 10,000 miles, and an effective combat radius of 4,000 miles with a 10,000-pound bombload. This was about 4 times the combat radius of the Boeing B-17, the AAF's newest and best bomber. Although the word "range" is often qualified, in this context it indicates how far an aircraft can fly under given operating conditions from the moment of takeoff to the time when its fuel supply is exhausted, as in "the aircraft's range was 7,000 miles, enough to fly nonstop from San Francisco to London." The "combat radius" is the radius of action for any given airplane on a combat mission with a specified load and flight plan. The "radius of action" differs from "range" in that the aircraft is always considered to return to the point at which it takes off. It is like the radius of a circle, and represents the maximum distance at which a given airplane can operate, under given conditions, from the center of the circle and still return to the center. This distance, under combat conditions, is considerably less than one half the distance that the aircraft can fly under noncombat conditions. The conferees further specified that the future intercontinental bomber should have a cruising speed between 240 and 300 miles per hour, and a 40,000 foot service ceiling (5,000 feet less than originally requested).
After a review of preliminary data from Boeing, Consolidated, and Douglas, the Materiel Division of the Air Corps suggested prompt action on the Consolidated study, which covered several long range bomber designs, both 4 and 6 engine pusher and pusher tractor types. Consolidated, after specializing for many years in seagoing aircraft, reentered the landplane field early in 1940, with development of the B-24 Liberator. Keenly aware of the Air Corps's interest in large bombers with extended ranges, the company at this time had begun work on a number of design possibilities. This endorsement of Consolidated was in no way a rejection of either Boeing or Douglas services. Yet, it proved to be a turning point in the intercontinental bomber program. Douglas Aircraft stated in late 1941 that it did not desire to undertake an "out and out 10,000 mile airplane project." It proposed instead the development of Model 423, a 6,000 mile bomber, which was rejected. As for Boeing, the AAF believed as late as April 1942 that the company was "overly conservative" and had not yet "really tackled the (long range) airplane design with the necessary degree of enthusiasm." Two Boeing bomber designs (Models 384 and 385) submitted in September were never developed.
The development decision was made by Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the new Army Air Forces, on the recommendation of Brig. Gen. George C. Kenney, Commanding Officer of the Air Corps Experimental Division and Engineering School at Wright Field, Ohio. This decision came on 16 October 1941. General Kenney's recommendation rested on a detailed proposal (drawings and bid were submitted by Consolidated on 6 October), which asked for $15 million plus a fixed fee of $800,000 for research and development; mockup, tooling, and production of 2 experimental long range bombers (Model 35). Delivery of the first airplane would be 30 months after approval of the contract; that of the second, 6 months later. Consolidated also stipulated that the project could not be "entangled with red tape" and constantly changing directives. Between 1940 and 1943 the federal government had screened federal employees for "loyalty" using a secret "Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations" (AGLOSO). The original legal basis for this list was the August 1939 Hatch Act, which banned from government employment any person who held "membership in any political party or organization which advocated the overthrow of our constitutional form of government in the United States." Similar provisions were regularly included thereafter in congressional appropriations acts. Pursuant to these congressional mandates, Attorney General Francis Biddle created a temporary interdepartmental committee to investigate alleged subversion within the federal government. Biddle and the Dickinson Committee (named for Special Assistant to the Attorney General Edwin Dickinson), which he created in early 1942, designated 47 organizations by May 1942 as falling within the Hatch Act criteria, membership in which raised a "flag" with regard to federal employees or applicants for federal jobs. A brief reference to the secret AGLOSO was contained in a Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum that was published as part of a report that Attorney General Francis Biddle made to Congress in September 1942. Without naming the organizations, beyond the Communist Party (CP) and the pro-Nazi German American Bund, whose inclusion under the Hatch Act mandate had been previously announced by the Civil Service Commission (CSC), the FBI document reported that the Dickinson Committee had designated 47 organizations as coming "within the purview" of the congressional mandates, including "12 Communist or Communist 'front' organizations; 2 American Fascist organizations; 8 Nazi organizations; 4 Italian fascist organizations; and 21 Japanese organizations." Under the Hatch Act, the FBI investigated a federal employee only if there were "definite and substantial indications that he is a member of one of the 47 organizations declared subversive by the Attorney General" or allegations that he personally advocated the overthrow of the government or belonged to an organization advocating such. During closed July 1946 hearings, U.S. Civil Service Commission [CSC] head Arthur Flemming told the HCSC subcommittee that, in the light of congressional passage of the 1939 Hatch Act and other legislation, the CSC had "no difficulty" in determining that Communist Party members or followers of the party "line," along with "persons actively associated with groups or organizations whose primary loyalty was to Nazi, Fascist or Japanese governments," should be barred from federal employment. Flemming vigorously defended the CSC policy of not asking federal applicants about their association with certain organizations, including pro-Spanish loyalist groups, since, along with "some Communist Party liners," those "whom you and I would never in the world classify as anything but very good progressives or liberals" had supported the loyalists, including "undoubtedly plenty of people in the Government right now" viewed "as responsible leading progressives." Overall, there are serious gaps in the paper trail. According to official Tinker history documents, the Oklahoma City Air Depot repaired and calibrated the then top-secret Norden MK15 bombsight during the war years. However, besides photos showing standard overhaul and maintenance and some armament upgrades, there is little else mentioned about the B-17. This gap in information is likely due to the aircraft having the highest security classification and records were destroyed before being downgraded. In its first year of operation (September 1948–August 1949), the Aircraft Scheduling Unit set up “voluntary cooperative agreements” in aircraft steel warehousing, aluminum production, aircraft alloy steel fabricating mills, and in magnesium alloy sheet rolling. In the latter instance, when Consolidated Vultee, prime contractor for the B–36, reported shortages of magnesium sheet, Aircraft Scheduling Unit representatives coordinated with Dow Chemical, the producer, to determine how much additional magnesium sheet capacity would be necessary to maintain the B–36 program. The organization then assisted the Eastern Stainless Steel Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in setting up a magnesium alloy sheet rolling capability. In addition to quadrupling the number of planes that the Air Force could buy over the quantity purchased in FY 1948, the funds provided by Congress would also enable the service to distribute contracts more widely. In contrast to the original FY 1948 program, under which three firms received nearly 90 percent of the allocation for new aircraft purchases, the Air Force planned to “spread the business” in FY 1949. Although funds would still be concentrated among a few manufacturers, the FY 1949 program called for the share held by the top three to decline from 90 percent to less than two-thirds of the total. Initially, the three firms slated to receive most of the appropriation were Boeing, North American, and Northrop. By mid-1949, however, Convair had replaced Northrop because of the Air Force’s decision to cancel procurement of the reconnaissance version of Northrop’s B–49 “flying wing” in favor of increased B–36 procurement. Counting those outstanding from prior years, the Air Force had procurement contracts with 16 aircraft manufacturers. In the latter half of 1949, an instance of allegations of inappropriate behavior associated with the revolving door was very much in the spotlight. In late May 1949, charges surfaced in Congress that Secretary of Defense Johnson and Symington had wrongly used their positions to influence the Air Force’s purchase of Convair’s long-range B–36 bomber over Northrop’s B–49 and Boeing’s B–54. Before becoming secretary of defense, Johnson had been a director and Washington-based counsel for Convair, whose president was Floyd Odlum. Symington also knew Odlum, both professionally and socially. According to one of the allegations, Symington had been conspiring with Odlum to create “a huge aircraft combine,” entailing a merger of Northrop and Convair, that the Air Force secretary would direct after leaving government service. Following cancellation of United States, the interservice dispute over roles and missions was publicly and acrimoniously aired during two-part hearings before the House Armed Services Committee in the late summer and early fall of 1949. The first hearings focused on alleged irregularities in the acquisition of the B–36. The Navy’s credibility was undermined by the revelation that one of its civilian employees had written an anonymous document charging Secretary of the Air Force Symington and Secretary of Defense Johnson with a conflict of interest. The document claimed that the two officials favored procurement of the aircraft because of their previous business and social connections with Floyd Odlum, president of Convair, the plane’s builder. The second set of hearings centered on the relative merits of the B–36 versus the supercarrier and on the effectiveness of strategic bombardment. Francis P. Matthews, the newly appointed Navy secretary, appeared before the committee and played down the importance of the B–36 versus supercarrier controversy, attributing it to a small number of naval aviators unhappy with the cancellation of United States and other cuts in naval aviation. Several of the Navy’s highest-ranking officers, including Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, followed with testimony that took a much different tack. While sharply criticizing the B–36 and strategic bombardment, they also vigorously affirmed the value of the supercarrier and naval aviation. This episode, known as the “revolt of the admirals,” resulted in the firing of Admiral Denfeld, who had publicly contradicted not only the views of the secretary of the Navy, his immediate civilian superior, but also those of the secretary of defense. Extensive congressional hearings into procurement of the B–36, the decision to cancel United States, and the effectiveness of strategic bombing captured public attention during the summer and fall of 1949. As a result of the investigation, the House Armed Services Committee cleared both Johnson and Symington of the allegations of unethical conduct. But the whole affair had long-term effects.
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